Problems with DIY, Document Preparers, and Trust Mills
We recently came across a car with a decal advertising “Legal Document Preparation” for “Wills, Trusts, Divorce, Notary & more.”
Upon looking at the website, the business focuses on the affordable nature of their services, but nothing is mentioned about having quality, customized, or comprehensive work. In fact, the Legal Document Preparer’s website includes this important disclaimer below.
Though the thought of getting a good deal is appealing, when it comes to professional and legal services, it is so important to be an informed consumer. You can get legal documents made by a non-attorney, you can get medical advice from a non-medical professional, you can fix your car by yourself, BUT this does not mean you are getting the level of quality, accuracy, and service you deserve. For legal services handled by a non-attorney or attorney who doesn’t provide full services, this does not even mean your documents will hold up in a court of law or work as you had hoped.
We do receive phone calls frequently from people who say that their situation is “simple,” “straight forward,” or that they “don’t have a lot of assets” so they assume their Estate Plan will be simple. In our experience, however, these clients often need our help the most and when going through the process, they end up realizing the nuance and complexity needed in order to make their Estate Plan follow their wishes.
There are many online services, Legal Document Preparers, and low-cost law firms that are known as “trust mills.” These services tout that Estate Planning is so easy, just requires filling out a few boxes, and then you can sign your documents.
Unfortunately, the problem with this is that clients don’t know what they don’t know. Even attorneys who don’t practice Trusts and Estates law would not know how to create a solid plan. Good Estate Planning does not just involve completion of forms; it also requires understanding of current Trusts and Estates law, Tax law, family dynamics, legal drafting, and thinking about different scenarios, contingencies, and consequences. This means that the attorney and the client need to have in-depth discussions, both sides must ask questions and answer them, and thoughtful legal advice must be given to have a solid plan.
A non-attorney cannot give legal advice. This is the fine print language you will see on the self-help services. As the image in the disclaimer above states, they can only do things based on “your specific direction.” If you are not an attorney and have not explored Estate Planning before, you would not know everything that you need to do and cannot comprehensively guide the person working with you. If someone cannot give legal advice, they CANNOT create a comprehensive Estate Plan that considers different situations, laws, and client needs.
A trust mill attorney cannot give good legal advice. Trust mills charge low prices to clients and offer boilerplate work, generally do not spend much time or follow-up on funding the trust, and treat each client’s situation the same without regard to differences in needs and goals. The nature of trust mills is that because they charge so little, they cannot effectively guide their clients, do not customize the plans for their clients (unless the clients have the savvy to know what to ask for), and have to take on a large amount of clients in order to make their practice profitable. High volume, low-cost attorneys CANNOT focus on each client’s specific needs because their business model does not allow for this level of detail and they likely don’t have time to stay updated with updates to the law.
We frequently work with clients who are doing their Estate Plan for the second or third time. Sometimes, the first time they approached Estate Planning, they used a low-cost option. We have clients who didn’t know what their original Estate Plans said and didn’t fund their trust. We tell them that it’s a good thing nothing had happened to them, otherwise, their Estate Plan may not have worked as they intended AND assets would have gone through the probate process. We have even had clients who used an attorney and whose previous documents were not signed, meaning these would have no legal effect! Often, the goal for Estate Planning is to avoid family conflict and probate so it is vital to take this process seriously, from design to execution.
Regardless of whether our client has explored Estate Planning previously, we take the process seriously and use a step by step process for each client. Our clients will mention they learned so much with the firm that they didn’t know about during their last time creating their plan. They may not have known about their different options, the relevant laws and how those affect them, specifics with funding the trust, and the process of administering the trust. Though some of the conversations we have will be about situations that are unlikely to happen, we think it’s important that the Estate Plans fully address these so that these decisions are based on your wishes, not boilerplate language.
Having your Estate Plan completed is important. Having a well-thought out and customized Estate Plan is a must. Too often in this field of law, when someone figures out an Estate Plan isn’t done well, it’s too late. This can mean that the assets go through probate court, that the family has conflict, or the assets aren’t being distributed in a manner that is appropriate for the family. These issues can be addressed by working with an attorney who takes the time to get to know you, your goals and wishes, and makes education about funding the trust a priority.
Each client is unique and accordingly, each client’s Estate Plan needs to be unique in addressing their needs, dynamics, and personal situation. Some Estate Planning attorneys joke that they love people who use online services, document preparers, and trust mills because this brings business to them when the clients either need to completely redo their Estate Plans or when their families need to go through a complicated process. The firm’s philosophy is that we want clients to have the best experience through customized, comprehensive, and compassionate services. When clients want to make amendments to their plans we created, it is not due to problems with the plan, but due to changes in their life circumstances or wishes. We want our clients to trust us, appreciate the whole process, and feel confident that they have a GOOD Estate Plan made just for them.